If the idea of having something implanted directly in your brain unsettles you, you’re not alone. But that’s exactly what a promising new treatment for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia entails. The experimental treatment, known as “deep brain stimulation,” isn’t available for dementia yet. If it does fulfill its promise, it still won’t go public for several years. But for a disease that’s incurable and basically untreatable, the possibility of any effective treatment is a glimmer of hope at the end of a very dark tunnel.
Sometimes mad scientists get it right
Although scientists are still experimenting with deep brain stimulation, it’s actually an approved treatment for Parkinson’s disease. It’s actually an official treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder. And scientists are now looking into using it for various other issues such as depression and chronic pain—and dementia.
Now, there’s something that science and medicine don’t like to admit when it comes to the brain. And that’s that for all their big talk, they really don’t know a lot about it. It’s largely uncharted territory. If what we know about the rest of the body would fill an ocean, then what we know about the brain would fit in a teacup. So nearly any treatment that’s brain-related is experimental to some degree. And it’s from the brave people willing to act as guinea pigs that much of what knowledge we have comes.
That’s exactly how a researcher at the University of Toronto discovered that an electric shock deep in the brain could recover memories lost to dementia.
Back in 2008, Dr. Andres Loranzo decided to try a radical approach toward obesity. And if you’re wondering what obesity has to do with Alzheimer’s, be patient. I’m getting there. Dr. Loranzo is a neurosurgeon, so of course his solution was to poke around in his patient’s brain. His reasoning was that stimulating the part of the brain that controls appetite might cure his patient’s insatiable hunger and help reverse his obesity. So he stuck an electrode in the patient’s hypothalamus and gave him a jolt of electricity.
The end result was—pardon the pun—rather shocking.
The patient suddenly recalled memories he had long forgotten. He described feeling 20 years younger. And as Loranzo experimented with different amounts of electricity, the memories became more vivid. Now, the hypothalamus isn’t generally associated with memory. Loranzo and his team were more than a little surprised. They were completely puzzled. So they looked at 3-D scans of the patient’s brain to see what was going on.
They found that zapping this part of the brain also increased electrical activity—which is how brain cells communicate—in the hippocampus. That’s the part of the brain we think is the seat of memory. It’s also the part of the brain first affected by Alzheimer’s.
In Alzheimer’s patients, the hippocampus slowly shrinks. Brain cells lose the ability to communicate. They begin to die. That’s why memory loss is one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. From there, the damage spreads all over the brain. Brain cells die, brain tissue shrinks, and one system after another goes offline till eventually the brain just stops working. So when Loranzo found that an electric shock stimulated increased the activity there, he knew he might be onto something. He set up a very small study with a handful of dementia patients to test his theory.
And for some of them, memories came back.
Will future dementia patients get a “pacemaker” for their brains?
All the people in the study had electrodes implanted in their brains. This time the electrodes were put in an area called the fornix, which next door to the hippocampus. The group included people with both mild and severe dementia.
The study ran for a year. During that year, their brains were constantly stimulated with electricity. At the end of the year the people who’d started with severe dementia didn’t have any improvement. But in the group with mild dementia, the progression of the disease had slowed markedly. This suggests that after a certain point, the damage may be irreparable. But it also suggests that until that point, upping the electricity in certain parts of the brain might give neurons the extra boost they need to keep communicating...and stay alive.
And the procedure appears to be safe. This alone makes the treatment worth exploring. Current drug treatments are hellish. The side effects can be terrible. And they’re only slightly more effective than a placebo. If this procedure could slow the disease even moderately, the lack of side effects would make it worthwhile for many people.
A larger, longer-term trial is going on right now. And though the study isn’t far enough along for a final answer, some interesting facts have emerged. About a third of patients have recalled lost childhood memories. Some patients have had their hippocampus actually grow rather than shrink. The memory centers in the brains of these patients are also using more glucose than those of control groups, which means they’re using more energy. And both animal and other human studies have also been very encouraging.
Maybe, just maybe, this treatment can act as a stopgap measure till we find the cause—and the cure for Alzheimer’s.
In the meantime, prevention is the best option. Although we don’t understand what causes it, we do know some of the risk factors. Age is the biggest risk factor of course—the older you get, the more likely dementia becomes. But other risk factors are things we can do something about. These include:
- Alcohol use. Heavy drinkers are more likely to develop dementia. Drinking in moderation, on the other hand, may help prevent it.
- Hardening of the arteries. People with atherosclerosis are more likely to develop dementia. This may be due to poor blood flow to the brain.
- Diabetes. Chronically high blood sugar is linked to both dementia and heart disease.
- High blood pressure.
- Smoking. Smoking is also linked to dementia, possibly due to poor blood flow.
What can you do? The prescription for prevention is the same as for the other plagues of the modern world, diabetes and heart disease. It boils down to three basic things:
- Eat real food. Avoid processed junk and high-sugar or high-carb crap.
- Get some exercise. Exercise cuts your risk exponentially.
- Don’t carry a lot of extra pounds.
And beyond these—use your brain every day. Exercise your mind the same as you would your body. Giving your brain a thorough workout each and every day cuts your risk of all forms of dementia.